February 26, 2008
VILLA DEL ROSARIO, Venezuela -- Eustacio Galindo was tempting fate when he decided to check milk production at his ranch in the lawless grasslands near the Colombian border.
Would-be kidnappers grabbed the 70-year-old Galindo, one of his farmhands and his 32-year-old son, Jairo, ordering them at gunpoint into his SUV.
Minutes later, a struggle ensued as they drove. Galindo lost control. They flipped over, killing him and the farmhand. Jairo was shot in the neck before the assailants fled.
Kidnappings are on the rise in Venezuela's western ranchlands, especially in the shadow of the Sierra de Perija, the border-defining mountains locals call "no man's land."
Locals say it's no coincidence the kidnapping rate is down across the border, where Colombia's U.S.-backed military has intensified its attacks on leftist rebels.
Venezuela's ranchers association blames the plague of abductions on rebels who have increasingly found refuge in Venezuela. Others say all manner of kidnappers operate in the border zone.
"Our border is under the control of Colombian groups, guerrillas, paramilitaries, common criminals, organized crime," bemoaned Porfirio Davila, a 38-year-old veterinarian.
Davila's father, also Porfirio, was kidnapped 4 1/2 years ago about 60 miles inside Venezuela by gunmen who identified themselves as members of the ELN, or National Liberation Army. He remains captive.
President Hugo Chavez, who is sympathetic to the rebels' cause, says their leaders assure him they are no longer kidnapping Venezuelans.
Afflicted ranchers suspect otherwise. The only difference from a few years ago, many say, is that the rebels no longer claim responsibility.
Four in five kidnappings in Venezuela occur in states on or near the Colombian border: Tachira, Zulia, Apure and Barinas, Chavez's home state.
Overall, ransom kidnappings rose 48 percent to 382 in Venezuela last year, according to the national government, which says 31 people are currently being held.
But Davila said the number is too low because people tend not to report extortive kidnappings - instead, they personally negotiate ransoms that can run as high as $1 million.
"The kidnapping of Venezuelans is not a priority for the government," he vented. "We don't get the attention we deserve."
Chavez rejects such allegations, saying this month that "we've been acting without rest these nine years (since he was first elected) on behalf of any Venezuelan kidnapped, whatever the group."
Chavez said he had been assured by the ELN and by the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, that "they're not holding Venezuelans and don't have any plans to kidnap anyone in Venezuela."
But that's not what two former ELN fighters who deserted in November told the AP, speaking on condition of anonymity because Colombia's military employs them as informants.
One of them, who uses the alias "Camilo," said corrupt Venezuelan National Guard soldiers provide ELN fighters with intelligence on well-heeled Venezuelans - and the guerrillas then do the kidnapping, never identifying themselves as rebels.
"What they call common criminals in Venezuela are, to a great extent, guerrillas," Camilo said.
Afflicted ranchers say the government is being negligent at best.
Alexander Pavon, 26, cited the case of his mother and brother, who were kidnapped in December 2003. He and four siblings pooled resources to pay for food and transportation for police investigators who then flubbed the case, releasing a man caught with a cell phone used by the captors in ransom negotiations, said Pavon. The siblings haven't heard from the kidnappers since 2004.
Ranchers and farmers now carry short-wave radios into the fields to alert one another to strangers, reflecting an insecurity that has only worsened Venezuela's chronic dairy shortages. In Rosario alone, milk production plunged from 132,000 gallons per day a decade ago to 52,800 gallons now, said Astolfo Berroeta, a 45-year-old local dairy farmer.
Escorted by two Venezuelan soldiers, he took two AP journalists to a ranch he hadn't visited since men with rifles came looking for him there two months earlier. He said he has another farm, in El Diluvio, up in the Perija mountains, he hasn't seen in four years.
Berroeta said he won't go because he fears he will either be kidnapped or assaulted by Colombian refugees squatting on the property.
Lamented Berroeta: "We're being driven out little by little."
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report from Cucuta, Colombia and Urena, Venezuela.